Banned Books Blog: June 2024

Welcome to the Banned Books Blog! This June 2024, we have a young Asian-American teen coming to terms with his sexuality at summer camp and a Mexican girl whose family fights for desegregating California's schools.

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Currently, Florida is responsible for an astounding 3,135 of the 4,349 school book bans and challenges so far this school year. But while some adults concern themselves over content and morality, banning books can actually deeply impact children's leaning. Banning books suppresses curiosity, creativity, and exploration of different perspectives. Not only that, but banning books fosters a narrow worldview and creates a climate of fear.

Students are fighting back, though! As Annabelle Jenkins crossed the stage of her high school graduation, she tried to hand a copy of the school district's recently-banned graphic novel version of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood to the school's superintendent who wouldn't even touch it.

But with the Banned Books Blog, there is no debate. There's only reading!

Title: Flamer by Mike Curato

Reason for Challenge/Banning: Florida Governor DeSantis and Moms for Liberty banned Flamer due to concerns over representing "alternate sexualities." 

Summary: I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both. I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.

It's the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone's going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can't stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre: Teen graphic novel

Length: 366 pages

Content Warnings: Bullying, homophobia, suicidal thoughts, body shaming, racism

Challenge/Banning Response: It's clear that the reference to "alternate sexualities" refers to homosexuality. In fact, there are public comments regarding this book that describe it as "indescribable filth" and "extremely disturbing." Some of this is in reference to the teenage boys at camp who speak, well, like unsupervised teenage boys. But mostly, it's due to the fact that a sexuality other than heterosexuality is featured. There are two characters in this book who are gay: one is a camp counselor who is speculated as gay and outed behind the scenes, then sent home for the rest of camp, and the other is our main character Aiden, who only comes to terms with himself by the end of the book. Aiden struggles with his sexuality for a large portion of the book, being bullied by other campers, trying to sing a valley-girl version of a camp song, and dreaming about his tent-mate Elias. He doesn't recognize he's gay—or even that he has feelings for other boys—all he knows is that he's different and others know this, too.

Spoiler ahead!

By the end of the book, Aiden goes to the camp's church and reveals his pocket knife. Whether he's contemplating suicide or self-harm, we know what's about to happen won't be good. But as author Mike Curato states in an interview with PEN, this book isn't necessarily about sexuality or sex. It's about suicide prevention. Whether Aiden realizes he's gay or bisexual or queer is beyond the point: it's about showing that Aiden has a place in this world, in his camp, with his friends. It's about showing readers that this world, though it may be difficult, has a place for them, even if it's hard to find.

So banning or challenging this book just because Aiden wrestles with his sexuality is a disservice to any and all readers who struggle with their identity, with being bullied, or with feeling alone.

Personal Thoughts: Aiden is such a sweet kid who has a fantastical imagination and fondness for his friends—it's no question why you want to root for him! Though his story is told largely in black and white,  bright orange and red flames make their way onto the pages, tying together the camp setting, the title, and the reference to Aiden's sexuality as he gets closer and closer to his personal understanding.

I did wonder if the subject of his father would come up again, as in the early pages we're introduced to his parents. His father is angry, argumentative—definitely more on the abusive side than not—and Aiden often spends time comforting his mother. I was wondering if Aiden was worried about his family, what his father might say...but when you're at camp, I can imagine that Aiden was mostly worried about the immediate problem.

This really is such an endearing book, and it reminds me of Maggie Thrash's graphic novel Honor Girl. Flamer also invites you into its plot by referencing X-Men, various camp hobbies like archery and basket weaving, and pen pals. Perhaps childhood and the nineties evokes the idea of a simpler time, but for a character like Aiden, his time at camp is anything but. Even if you aren't gay and perhaps can't directly empathize with Aiden in that regard, perhaps you can empathize with a crisis of faith, entering middle school, or straining friendships. It's all a part of growing up, and that's what makes this book relatable to any reader.

Title: Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

Reason for Challenge/Banning: This book was challenged in Tennessee because it "features contemporaneous quotes uttered by White segregationists in court.” It wasn't banned in its entirety, but teachers are censored from reading pages 25-27 to their students.

Summary: Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. An American citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage who spoke and wrote perfect English, Mendez was denied enrollment to a 'Whites only' school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre: Children's nonfiction

Length: 40 pages

Content Warnings: Racism, institutionalized white supremacy

Challenge/Banning Response: I can understand being ashamed of one's history, especially when it's as obviously racist and egregious as Mr. Kent's quotations. On pages 25-27, Sylvia and her family are in court to argue for their right to an equal education These quotations were pulled directly from court transcripts and shortened for clarity and pacing. On page 25, the school's superintendent Mr. Kent blatantly lies on the stand. On pages 26 and 27, Mr. Kent states his opinion that Mexican children are inferior to white children. If you are anti-racist, pro-education, or pro-child, these are certainly difficult pages to read. Seeing someone's real words being used against an entire demographic is harsh and unfair to say the very least. But it is necessary to read this, sit with our discomfort, and reconcile the fact that this is indeed American history. American history is unfair and it is racist. We must face this head on if we are to learn from our past and do better for our future. 

In fact, this case paved the way for Brown vs the Board of Education seven years later, ending segregation in all schools in the United States. To learn from our history gives us the capacity to use this knowledge to make our communities more empowered. Besides, Sylvia Mendez is still alive! On June 7th, she turned 88. This is not in the distant past. This is still the lived experience and memory of many Americans today.

Personal Thoughts: School may be out and students may be sighing a breath of relief, but imagine how breathtaking it was to win your right to attend a school that didn't have an electrical fence, that had a playground, that had a decent infrastructure. Going to school may be a-given now, but not even 100 years ago was it actually available and accessible to all children! 

Duncan Tonatiuh is a master at bringing difficult topics and court cases to the forefront of children's literature. Told with the assistance of his iconic mixed-media art style, this book shows the discrepancies as they are. It's a book that doesn't shy away from the truth of the matter and has no problem exposing the source material, which makes this a bold and strong book.